Home Grown

To teach middle schoolers the value of organic gardening, an Environmental Policy graduate student had to get her hands dirty. 

Just down the road from Lehigh’s ivy-covered Alumni Memorial Building sits Broughal Middle School—with 600 students, the smallest school in the Bethlehem public school system. About 75 percent of Broughal students qualify for free or reduced lunch, with students’ families facing socioeconomic challenges typical of Southside Bethlehem and the nation as a whole. But Broughal, which moved to a new building in 2009 and reopened as a math, science, and technology signature school, is thriving—thanks, in part, to a community outreach program that helps Lehigh students provide academic support, homework help, and extracurricular assistance to the Broughal community.

One such student is Christina DeSalva, a graduate of Lehigh’s Environmental Policy and Community Fellows programs. DeSalva spent the 2011-2012 school year, along with this past summer, running Broughal’s first-ever gardening club. Here, she taught students about organic growing practices, sustainability, and the importance of eating locally.

DeSalva is a local product herself: Born and raised in North Bethlehem, she earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics and economics at nearby Lafayette College. After graduating from Lafayette in 2011, she enrolled in a master’s program at Lehigh in Environmental Policy and Design, offered through the Environmental Initiative. A community fellowship, DeSalva learned, would allow her to complete her degree in one year—and an opening at Broughal, in partnership with Lehigh’s College of Education and its Center for Developing Urban Education Leaders, sounded like a perfect fit.

As a community fellow, she was tasked with developing curriculum for and then supervising an after-school gardening club for sixth-, seventh-, and eight-graders that would take advantage of Broughal’s new rooftop greenhouse. DeSalva had previously been involved in an environmental club on campus at Lafayette, but she says her interest in organic gardening started long before college.

“My dad and I have always gardened at home,” she says. “He got me into nutrition and how food affects the body. He instilled in me that it’s always better to do things the organic way, as opposed to using fertilizers.”

With the help of a Broughal science teacher, DeSalva has taught gardening club members how to grow herbs, flowers, and produce like peppers and tomatoes. The club meets mainly in the school’s greenhouse, every Thursday after school plus twice a week in the summer. But students also get the opportunity to transplant what they’ve grown to nearby community gardens, or to sell it at Lehigh’s weekly farmer’s market on campus. 

“It’s interesting to observe what they enjoy the most,” DeSalva says. “When I garden, I get excited about seeing my plants grow creating something new. They get more excited about the little things, like finding bugs in the compost pile and taking care of their plants along the way.”

DeSalva’s gardening club curriculum includes a 15-minute composting lesson each week, followed by hands-on science experiments and maintenance projects in the greenhouse. “We seek out opportunities to to teach the kids about different stages of plant life and gardening,” she says. “If we find there are seeds or that a plant is starting to flower, we take that opportunity to teach them about germination.”

She also organized a nutritional component to Broughal’s gardening club, in which Lehigh students came to the school and performed cooking lessons with the food they’d grown. Many of the recipes, like sweet potato fries, were a huge hit. “I thought the kids’ favorite part would be eating afterward—and they did clearly enjoy that. But I think they liked stirring and chopping and being active in the kitchen even more.”

Because of the socioeconomic challenges many Broughal students and their families face, DeSalva knew that her Garden Club curriculum had to focus on low-cost solutions that her students could replicate at home. Instead of using gardening-specific pots and planters, she showed students how to use styrofoam cups and yogurt containers to transport and grow seedlings. They made self-watering containers out of plastic soda bottles, and planted potatoes in kitty litter buckets.

Students got excited about being able to grow familiar produce they were used to seeing in stores and eating at home, DeSalva says. But they also enjoyed learning about more exotic fruits and vegetables, which DeSalva brought in often for them to touch, taste, and smell.

To fulfill her 15 hours of service a week required by the Community Fellows program, DeSalva also worked on other projects for Broughal—including leading a “Weighing of the Waste” initiative to teach the students about sustainability and waste reduction. After lunch one day, students collected all of the food and trash leftover on their trays, and weighed it on a giant scale. A few weeks later, at a second lunch-leftover weigh-in, they were able to significantly reduce the amount of waste. “We got them to recycle more packaging, and to not put as much food on their plate in the first place,” she says.

DeSalva completed her community fellowship—and with it, her Environmental Policy masters—in August. Her master’s thesis focused on agricultural cooperatives, or groups of small farms coming together to sell their products together as a larger business. Specifically, she says, agricultural cooperatives can be a way for individual farmers to overcome many of the barriers that keep them from providing food to local institutions, like schools or hospitals. Small farms may not be able to provide enough food on their own to keep up with the demand, for example, or they may not have the time and money to comply with food safety or distribution requirements. When they come together and combine funds, they can do things like get group insurance coverage.

“The Lehigh Valley has some of the best farm land in the country, so it’s a great place to learn about this and see what is possible. But at the same time, so many of the big institutions here are only getting a small percentage of their food, if anything, from local farms.”

DeSalva hopes her research will take her in the direction of a non-profit career, possibly helping corporations find ways to incorporate more local food into their establishments. Meanwhile, her legacy at Broughal lives on: A full-time teacher has taken over the role as gardening club supervisor, while student interest continues to grow